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 Semaphore is a newsletter and publishing project about art fromWestern Australia | Semaphore is a collaborative project and practice | Semphore enters into a dialogue with art from its rooted location of Boorloo on Noongar Country |


Swan River Colony

7 November 2019
A response to echoes of the Swan River Colony by Robert Wood


This place was once known to some as the ‘Swan River Colony’ (1829-1832). Now, we might, as some always have, call it Boorloo, Whadjuk, Noongar; or Perth, Western Australia, Australia. Those two might be islands separated by water, but they are places that can be reached from one another, so long as there is a bridge, maybe a skiff. By contrast, the ‘Swan River Colony’ as a singular phenomenon has been consigned to the bin of history. And while I rarely hear people speak of it in name, there are vestiges of it everywhere the remains of that colonial moment surround us in crests of government, public monuments, and names of city streets.

To recognise the ‘Swan River Colony’ as the ‘Swan River Colony’ matters for our discussion of art now. This is because it informs the theory that informs the language that represents art in this place. In other words, we are used to a type of thinking that would allow us to agree with each other when we say ‘class’, ‘aura’, and ‘revolution’. Just as we say, we are in ‘Western Australia’, we use words like those above when we describe videos, performances, sculptures, and every other aspect of the arts. This may be because they are useful references, and they are also shorthand to allows us to create a sense of group identity, just like ‘Swan River Colony’ did for its early colonists. This is a kind of network, a kind of society.

When we think of Boorloo, we might see it as a cared for ecosystem from its living parts such as bilya, djilgi, kwenda. It is not only those, but how they work together, how they are ‘of a whole’, an ecosystem that is a world as old as any other. By contrast, we know Perth has an arts scene in part because of its commodities as they circulate in its institutions that create identities. Perth matters too for where they fit in a world historical system, a speculative sense of the idea beyond its particularities. That is the art world from Venice to Basel. This is not to separate the two, to think ecosystems are not scenes, but to reflect in languages of Noongar and English, a way of organising a place that runs in parallel or crosses into or comes into contact. Both those things matter for understanding the past here, of how we might critique the Swan River Colony itself, even as the colony most informs the settler nation state that has replaced it.


Karl Marx writes in Chapter 33 of Capital I about the Swan River Colony:

First of all, Wakefield discovered that in the Colonies, property in money, means of subsistence, machines, and other means of production, does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if there be wanting the correlative – the wage-worker, the other man who is compelled to sell himself of his own free will. He discovered that capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things. Mr. Peel, he [Wakefield] moans, took with him from England to Swan River, West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 300 persons of the working class, men, women, and children. Once arrived at his destination, “Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.” Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River!

Marx goes on to talk about how capital becomes capital, about colonial relations, about public rather than private property, about American settlement, about labour markets, and about the political economy of the Old World before concluding book one of Capital with a remark on expropriation. What are we though, on this boodja, in this city, to make of a place that was once known as the ‘Swan River Colony’? Marx is writing about us, so what can we say back to him?

It might be to realise that he is talking about Unhappy Mr. Peel from the Peel region, which is now home to the WAFL team Peel Thunder. The second is that Marx realises through a critique of the colonial thinker Wakefield that capital is a social relation dependent on how things are used. And then we might see that Unhappy Mr. Peel’s attempts to create a certain type of capitalism here failed because he could only bring the objects but not the context or what Marx terms the ‘modes of production’. His lordship depends on their bondage.

That opens up the possibility of recognising that the Swan River Colony had its own modes of production, its own social relations. This remains the case even as Marx takes his thoughts in a different direction. He is not interested in this place here, but in how it matters for his system of thinking about capital in general. Speaking from Boorloo/Perth though, and, speaking now, we might use Marx’s comments to realise that our social relations are not only not English, no matter how Unhappy Mr. Peel tried to make them so; and, that there is another way of thinking about what happens here. We have our own set of circumstances that resist the totalising impulse of global market forces best represented by Unhappy Mr. Peel. That might be the pleasure of the modes of production in community art spaces that care little for what sells at Gagosian openings in London (or New York or Basel).

It also does, of course, mean respecting Noongar sovereignty and working towards it for the ancestors and the living. That does mean seeing unique material expressions here; be that bore water stained fences, personalised number plates, or high vis. It also means thinking in ecosystems and scenes about individuals that are here differently, that have arrived from colonialism elsewhere, which is its own world and its own historical set of relations.

In that way of thinking, we could turn to post-colonialism that would have us know that the Swan River Colony is from a time before. In post-colonial theory, we see the prevalence of ‘the Other’, that this describes the lord and bondsman in their modes of production. Its usage, just like dialectic, has become popularised, and, to some extent, reified. The word is deployed as a tactic separated from its intent to talk about a set of oppressive social relations. Colonialism is bad because it others us.

As a Malayali myself, I am an Other to Noongars and to white settlers; born here, but not from here, not in deep time, not in pre-history, not even in the Swan River Colony. Today, the Other is ground I am meant to occupy in theory, especially nationally, and also in response to the British Empire as it attempted and failed to change Kerala, my motherland. The Other is a way I become intelligible as an essentialised identity speaking truth to power that nevertheless denies my inalienable right to be heard. No doubt other ‘diverse people of colour’ recognise this discursive construct, which can only lead us to think that everyone is everyone else’s Other.

From Marx though, we can open ourselves out to something else, not an Other’s Other, not identity or class politics alone, but to something else. If we recognise the ongoing sovereignty of Whadjuk people; and if the Swan River Colony failed to receive Unhappy Mr. Peel’s capitalist social relations from England; then we will also see that the people who are Other to both are something else entirely. Here, we could think of Afghan cameleers, or Japanese pearl divers, or Chinese market gardeners; or, longer back, and somewhere close by, Macassar traders who swapped trepang with Yolgnu who themselves traded for ochre with neighbours which travelled alongside songs in networks across the continent. We are connected then, and this is where we are under-represented by binaries, not only self-Other but blak-white, male-female, lord-bondsman, Unhappy Mr. Peel-liberated worker.

Instead of being Others here however, we bear a ‘family resemblance’ between us. Rather than social relations, it is used to describe a relationship in language, and, Wittgenstein meant it as a way to say words and phrases overlap, criss-cross, and share affinities. And so, if there are distinct social relations in the Swan River Colony, and, there are Othered people who have a place in history, myth, art, how do we make sense of the ways we interact, share, and celebrate this here and now?

Through recognising each other in a family resemblance rather than one that is about ‘you’ and ‘I’ alone, or in conflict (class, race, settlement, or otherwise), lest we are unable to see ourselves reflected in the commodities we exchange, which ‘conceal’ rather than ‘disclose’ who we are at the end of the day. And that is what matters when we consider art as the antithesis of the commodity. Where the commodity on the market obscures, muddies, hides the truth of social relations; the artwork reveals, enlightens, clarifies the truth of people in their family resemblance. That is not only its aura then, but the labour of art, the craft of making, the production of work, that allows one to connect in the deepest intimacy of our souls. Reading Marx in the Swan River Colony helps us reach that conclusion because we turn to look inwards at ourselves most of all, to this place in the world. And so, art is a bridge between brothers, sisters, and non-binary siblings.


I am elsewhere, away from the Swan River Colony, from Boorloo, from Perth. I am sitting for breakfast and the bridge I can see is the one they call ‘Sydney Harbour Bridge’. From memory, they are flying an Australian flag, and, an Aboriginal one on top of it. As much as I recognise those signs, to me this is a foreign country, not a place I know. It would be a failure of discourse, a failure of theory, to consider them the same place. It would simply be the national way of looking at it. It would fail to recognise that the ecosystem, — the country — is different. It would fail to recognise that the scene, the social relations, are different. We might be in a family of resemblance with Gadigal, with Sydney, with the Australian art world, but that depends on reciprocity as much as recognition and possibility. I can see this bridge though because I am in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s top floor restaurant having breakfast.

We are elsewhere for an exhibition. It is ‘The National’. I am, of course, ready to critique its frame, not only regionally from the outskirts far away, being from a provincial periphery visiting a minor metropole; but post-nationally, trans-nationally, continentally. Nations are determined, in part, by their attempted monopolisation of violence, and so, what might be good for Serco might not be good for artists. Within The National then is a congealed view of the nation itself, and, within the nation a congealed set of social relations, and within those social relations a suffering country bigger than the heart and the continent it lives within – chest, lungs, kidneys, stomach, and blood that are tributaries of rivers dry with dust from Cubbie Station south. That is all too often obscured by the market forces, by the commodity fetish, by the art world discursive apparatus supported by bureaucratic expressions of taste. The nation though cannot simply be the accumulation of its citizens, or the framing of its constitution made by legislation, or even the negation of its self-loathing performativity by elitists. Within The National where I see what art can be is in one artwork particularly, the true bridge that is not the tourist one that I can see when I look up from my cup of tea.

The artwork is Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s Pretty Beach (2019). The National curator, Anna Davis, talks about this work as a three-dimensional memory with the illusion of realism that has an otherworldly quality. They go on to talk about how the stingrays are expertly carved so they closely resemble what stingrays look like in the ocean out there, and, how Abdullah’s grandfather’s suicide informs Pretty Beach, heightening its complexity and beauty.

It is enough to say that the work references another place again – Murramarang/Bawley Point. It is an ecosystem being a flock of bamba/stingrays floating in space beneath a diamond cloud of rain made from crystals. It is a scene with tourists taking selfies for Instagram inside the exhibition space. It is a set of social relations between the individual bamba/stingrays themselves; and, it is in a family resemblance as Abdullah recalls the reason he made this work and the death of an Elder.

However, to see it in its totality is not dependant on accumulating these particulars. It is not a question of thinking that if we add bamba/stingrays to dembart/grandfathers we come to the essence of Pretty Beach. Or, of counting how many particlars go into the piece. It is to speculate on why it moves us, to think what matters because of this artwork, and not because it is framed as ‘nationally important’ at this moment by institutions that bestow status upon us. The sense then is of its paradoxes – the colour of black and white, the surface of matte and bling, the texture of hard and soft – and how Abdullah neither chooses a side nor collapses into anonymity of a kind. It speaks its mind with a sense of autonomy. It sits inside, and, the viewer enters into performance with this sculpture when they see that the tear in the fellow viewer’s eye has the same sheen as the rain that is falling on the stingrays that glide away into Pretty Beach’s yesterday.

In writing this, I have a memory of Abdullah’s memory as he expresses it in carving and sculpture, which relates here to my expression in language. The layering of memory though, returns us to Boorloo/Perth, a place we occupy together. It takes us back to the memory of the Swan River Colony for Abdullah lives in Mundijong, which is a twenty-minute drive to Peel Manor House itself, named, of course, after its first resident, Unhappy Mr Peel, and built on Noongar land by working class labour. Perhaps the bridge that Abdullah and I, that we are crossing together is from the failed colonial project of the Swan River Colony, from Peel to a place we know as Pretty Beach, to a future memory, to sovereignty, to what we Malayalis call paramādhikāraṁ. The water is rising but the bridge has always been floating.

Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s Pretty Beach was exhibited as part of The National 2019: New Australian Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 29 March - 23 June 2019

Illustration by Kelly Fliedner.

Kaya. We acknowledge the Whadjuk People of Boorloo boodja who are the traditional owners of the land where Semaphore is made. We respect their culture, their custodianship, and their continuing contribution to the life of this city and this region. That includes recognising and respecting sovereignty while working in solidarity towards a treaty and supporting ongoing connection to country. That means linguistic rights, economic opportunity, and artistic endeavour. To their Elders, past, present and emerging, we say thanks.